Taloqan, Afghanistan - The women affairs office in Taloqan, the capital of the northern Afghan province of Takhar, remains busy as distressed women and family members line up for help.
One such woman is Sadia whose husband, a militiaman, recently cut off her genitals. She left her husband's home after the horrific incident.
"The women affairs office here has guided this case every step of the way," Razmara Hawash, who is in charge of the office in Takhar told Al Jazeera, referring to Sadia's case.
"If we had not, then they would have used either money or power to get her back. Her husband and his family are powerful people."
When they beat me, they would tell me, 'You're all alone, scream as loud as you want, there is no one here to hear you.'
Sadia quietly entered the room, lifted her burqa and took a seat. She's thin, almost emaciated, and old beyond her years.
"It was the second night of Ramadan," Sadia recounted, and she woke her husband up for suhoor, the morning meal served just before dawn.
"I prepared food and I told him to get up. When he got up he asked me why I didn't make milk tea. I told him I would go make it, but he didn't listen. He just started beating me."
Beatings were frequent over the course of their two-year marriage. Two months in, her husband and his family stopped feeding and giving Sadia clothes. They would shut all the windows and doors of the house and take turns beating and strangling her.
"When they beat me, they would tell me, 'You're all alone, scream as loud as you want, there is no one here to hear you.'"
"I asked from God to die."
Three-time abuse rule
Sadia returned to her family home three times because she was beaten so badly. At the husband's family's request, she was sent back, with a promise that the abuse would end.
Afghanistan's traditional justice system, one deeply woven into society, seemingly functions on a three-times rule. If, after the third time, a woman is still being abused by her husband, then elders, who often preside over the cases, will typically allow for a divorce.
Some families, however, intervene immediately so there is no second time. Others, not at all.
Mohammad Islam, Sadia's father, a poor daily labourer, admitted to seeing his daughter being beaten by her husband - not once, but several times. However, Sadia's husband, part of an armed group, sometimes known as arbakai, is led by a well-known, powerful local commander named Noor Mohammad.
Local armed groups have flourished in order to counter the threat from the Taliban as the central government's control barely runs beyond the capital, Kabul.
Afghan first lady in shadow of 1920s queen?
The growing fragility of the north can be seen on the vital highway linking the provincial capital of Takhar, where armed gunmen dot the road passing through the picturesque hills.
"The commander and his men put pressure on Sadia's family, who then come here and tried to pressure us to send her back. They have gone to the hospital and told the doctors to say this incident never happened," said Razmara.
"They also told the prosecutor to not touch the case. They have tried every means possible to get Sadia back."
As the director spoke, Sadia, probably 19 or 20 as she doesn't know her exact date of birth, leaned into the conversation, her hands clasped in her lap, looking down, continuously shaking her head in agreement.
Before passing out on that second night of Ramadan from the beating, Sadia recalls her husband getting on top of her, sitting on her face and then withdrawing his knife.
"I don't know how much time passed, but when I woke up he started beating me again. His brother's son came to the window and asked what was going on. I got up and walked to the window, my husband followed and continued to beat me. I crawled out of the window and my husband also followed."
When Sadia arrived at the hospital the following morning, according to Dr Safi, the director of public health, and Razmara, they found out that the right side of her major labia (outside fatty tissue covering the vagina) had been severed off by a knife. Her pelvis was mutilated and "abused" by hand, and her vaginal canal had been penetrated - with parts of her insides torn out.
"Violence against women is increasing day by day," Safi told Al Jazeera. "Today we even have a case of a woman with her ear cut off."
"But," he continued, "I have never seen anything like this before … not anywhere."
"In order for her to fully recover she needs plastic surgery. We can't do this in Afghanistan, she would need to go outside the country. We were also not able to give her a proper checkup, so we don't even know the full extent of the damage," Safi said.
Penalty to divorce
Sadia's husband is in jail. Provincial women affairs, which operates under Afghan ministry of women's affairs in Kabul, assigned a prosecutor to represent her case. However, if she wants to divorce her husband, according to her family, she must pay 500,000 Afghanis or $9,000.
"Crimes committed by these militia and their abuses against civilians have gotten worse," said Razmara.
Most here agree. The rise in crime and proliferation of armed groups, many of whom purportedly support the government, have been a direct result of the political instability in recent months.
"One of the worrying trends we saw during the elections, is the widespread reporting of strongmen distributing weapons to their followers," said Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group in Kabul.
"It is not clear how strong of a trend this was. They just opened the stockpiles they already had and gave out the guns to their men. Numerous political players observed this during the political transition."
"It's hard to put the genie back in the bottle."
In an unprecedented case in August, families driving back to Kabul, from a wedding in neighbouring Paghman district, were stopped by armed gunmen - who proceeded to rob, beat and gang rape four of the women, one of whom was pregnant. Seven of the men were sentenced to death.
|Afghan women gains under threat
Over the past four months, the women affairs office in Kabul told Al Jazeera that violence against women has gone up six percent nationwide compared to the same period last year. However, it is unclear whether the number of cases is increasing or if more women are seeking out government institutions for help.
"Despite evident gains in Afghanistan, such as a significant increase in government and public awareness and focus on women's rights, violence against women remains a grave concern and a huge amount still remains to be done to protect and realise women's rights," John Hendra, the assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director for policy and programme, UN Women, said in an email to Al Jazeera.
"Up to 87 percent of Afghan women have experienced some form of violence, and 62 percent have experienced multiple forms of violence. Incidence of violence remains under-reported and women continue to face significant difficulties in seeking justice as their cases are often handled through informal or traditional justice mechanisms that may not protect their rights."
"The litmus test of the human rights situation in Afghanistan going forward will be the extent to which the gains made by women and girls are protected, and further accelerated."
Sadia is recovering from her wounds, both physical and emotional, at a women's shelter in Taloqan. She said she would like to see the same thing that happened to her, happen to her husband.
According to Razmara, the same question was posed to Noor Mohammad, the commander of Sadia's husband.
"We asked him, 'If this was your daughter, what would you do?'"
"He said, 'I would kill the husband.'"
Follow Bethany Matta on Twitter: @BethanyMatta
Source: Al Jazeera